After two weeks of playoff action, we’ve come down to four teams – strangely enough, the #2 and #6 seeded team from each conference. The red-hot Green Bay Packers will travel to Chicago to face the Bears on the much-criticised Soldier Field turf, while the New York Jets also find themselves on the road for a third week in a row, up against the Pittsburgh Steelers and a similarly shoddy surface at Heinz Field. The playoffs have taught us that form leading in does not necessarily translate to post-season success. Therefore, this week In The Pocket will go a bit further into how the teams have been travelling before recommending some likely plays.
New York Jets @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Jets did every other team a favour by solving the Patriots puzzle in their second playoff game – adding Tom Brady’s scalp to that of Peyton Manning and an under-strength Colts on the wild card weekend. New York caught lightning in a bottle and played a near-perfect game on both sides of the ball. Defensively, coach Rex Ryan went away from his typical blitz packages, and took his most of his linebackers off the field for the game in favour of 5, 6 and 7 defensive back sets. This allowed them to shut down Brady’s receivers (holding them to 21 points – still a lot but nothing like what the Pats have been scoring) whilst the big guys up the front were able to control the running game enough to get away with it. Meanwhile, after months of throwing the ball over his receivers’ heads, QB Mark Sanchez was on target versus New England and made some great throws, while his offensive line ensured he could have been playing in a tuxedo and stayed clean.
Pittsburgh were far less impressive in their sole playoff victory against the Ravens. Matches between these two teams are always ugly defensive grudge matches, so the 31-24 score line seems surprising (especially for those of us who had punted on the Under. Not that In The Pocket is bitter). Watching the game though reveals that both defences caused multiple turnovers, leaving the opposing offenses with short fields. The Steelers took advantage of this, along with some defensive interference calls on pass plays, to seem stronger than they really were. They also let in a shocking TD by not playing to the whistle, letting a Baltimore lineman run in unopposed. Star safety Troy Polamalu played but is clearly hampered by his Achilles problem, but his team mates lifted and their defence remains a fearsome opponent. Their patchwork offensive line however is very shaky, and QB Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be constantly scrambling to make plays. Lucky for Pittsburgh, no one does that as well as Big Ben.
The teams played once this season, resulting in a 22-17 win by the Jets in Pittsburgh. Polamalu was not able to play that week though, and no team stops the run like the Steelers. New York rely on the power running of Shonn Greene and the change of pace finesse of LaDainian Tomlinson, but they may well find that they won’t get the easy running yards they are used to. The chances of Sanchez having two strong, accurate games in a row (especially against an elite defence like the Steelers) seem slim, so the Jets may follow the Ravens’ game plan for scoring against Pittsburgh – blitz hard and force turnovers.
When Pittsburgh has the ball, they need to find a way to protect Big Ben better than last week. With all their injuries to the offensive line, it’s a big ask against a creative blitzing defense like that of the Jets. Tight end Heath Miller, also missing from the regular season match, may be pushed into heavy service in the middle of the field as a passing target. The Jets cornerback combination of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie have been taking away the top two wide receivers consistently, so WR Mike Wallace – traditionally the Steelers’ deep threat – may have a very quiet game. In The Pocket isn’t twice shy after being bitten last week, and again will play the Under on the Total Points line of 38.5 with two elite defensive units on the field.
As to the winner of this game, it’s going to be another tough close game with the line seeming about right with the Steelers favoured by 3.5. It will come down to Roethlisberger’s performance under pressure. He’s such a big guy and so difficult to put down as a quarterback that he’s able to keep a play alive when it’s seemingly over. The Jets are heavily playing the “no one believes in us” card (see Bart Scott’s game end tirade for evidence) though, and it may just carry them through to the Superbowl.